Story by Graham Hoppe Photography by Baxter Miller & Sandra Davidson
The Shag, more properly known as the Carolina Shag, originated somewhere between Wilmington and Myrtle Beach though the exact location is disputed. Many experts seem to think it originated at the Carolina Beach Boardwalk. Local legend has it that dancers moved front to back to avoid splinters from the boardwalk planks. The dance still has devoted followers; It’s the state’s official popular dance, and you can find it at weddings, beach musical festivals and on state-issued license plates that feature a pair of loafers and reads, “I’d rather be Shaggin.” While they still dance the Shag at Carolina Beach, there is plenty to attract the attention of those who may have left their loafers at home. From what may well be the world’s best doughnut to a strong contender for the Old North State’s most unique bar, Carolina Beach can provide a wonderful and quirky day just steps from the shore.
Situated on the northern half of Pleasure Island, for decades Carolina Beach has offered more than a beach. Since the early 20th century this was Carolina’s beach, a popular destination with working-class mill and tobacco workers in the Piedmont. While the industries have changed, the beach remains a destination that prides itself on attracting families. With cheap parking, affordable food and drink and access to two major highways, Carolina Beach is an easy trip for many landlocked Carolinians.
For those generations who looked at Carolina Beach as their summer destination, it was heartbreaking to see the decline of the boardwalk in the '80s and '90s. The loss of amusement rides led to a slow decline for many family-friendly businesses. Zoning regulations intended to prevent flooding, rowdy bars and hopes for high dollar real estate investment left the Boardwalk an outdated orphan.
But, the boardwalk wouldn’t be left for dead. Thanks to the efforts of favorite establishments and new business and development, the boardwalk is vibrant again. Gone are the seedy days when businesses and tourists abandoned the area. Today, it is filled with shops, restaurants and bars where countless tourists and locals spend the summer months. The history, white sand beaches, and idiosyncratic local businesses make Carolina Beach a pleasant and sometimes peculiar place to visit on North Carolina’s coast.
Most of the dance halls are gone but if you want to find Shaggers head to Olde Salty’s, a beachfront bar and restaurant with a dance floor in back that hosts a weekly Shag night. Coifed and well-dressed beach music loving folks come ready to cut a rug. Olde Salty’s bartender Nicole Greeson, herself a dance-lover, says Shag night typically draws an older crowd, but she is seeing the next generation take interest in the dance. Johnie Davis is one of those longtime Shaggers. He has been coming to the beach since 1947 and called it home since 1982. He picked up the dance when he was in middle school from a friend’s sister, and has been dancing ever since. He says the newer places to dance, like Salty’s, along with the wildly popular Beach Music Festival in June have been part of the revitalization, “It brought the music lovers back.” Once they came back, he says, the beach became a draw again, “Along with rebuilding the boardwalk, they built a new bandstand up there so we’ve got a permanent stage for the Beach Music Festival.”
From Olde Salty, you can see that new wooden boardwalk, completed earlier this year, that connects boardwalk businesses to the beach. There are benches and showers for beachgoers, and the elevated platform provides expansive views of the Atlantic. The new boardwalk is just one reason Greeson is optimistic about the community’s direction noting their thriving events calendar and new hotel. “I love island life,” says Greeson, who has lived in Carolina Beach for over a decade. If you catch her at the bar, she may be willing to tell you about it. If you’re really lucky, she’ll tell you about the time Olde Salty herself, owner Brenda Armes, banned screaming children from the place. The declaration caused an international kerfuffle and made headlines far and wide. “They were going to have us on the Today Show, but the Pope took a trip to Scotland so they bumped us” remembers Greeson. They still keep a scrapbook behind the bar of the outraged tabloid articles and the mail they generated, mostly supportive. Tucked in the last page of the book is the sign that started it all. It doesn’t hang in the window anymore.
In spite of Olde Salty’s brush with fame, the shop most popularly associated with Carolina Beach is Britt’s Donuts. It has seen economic shifts, its share of hurricanes, and a seemingly inordinate number of boardwalk fires including one across the path that destroyed the Boardwalk Arcade, another anchor storefront, just last year.
It is a rare thing to find a perfect place. A place that does whatever they do just right–not too much, not too little. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly why, but Britt’s Donuts is such a place. Frying doughnuts for boardwalk patrons since 1939, Britt’s has gained an ardent following and national acclaim for providing perhaps North Carolina’s simplest menu: glazed donuts, soft drinks, coffee and milk.
Today, regulars tell the teenager behind the counter the number of donuts they want. Newbie tourists are paradoxically paralyzed by the lack of choice. In spite of there being just one donut option they stare at the menu board, or worse ask for a Danish or heaven forbid a chocolate donut. But, you don’t need that stuff, a perfect paper-bag full of glazed donuts is just that: perfect.
Carolina Beach’s popularity grew around Britt's. The storefront saw the invention of the Shag and the dance’s heyday. They made donuts through the Second World War — when lights near the beach had to be blacked out and grease from ships sunk by German submarines washed ashore. Time has inflicted good, bad, and sometimes fiery change around it, but Britt’s has always been a survivor.
Britt’s may be the last of the original holdouts on the boardwalk, but there are a couple of other spots nearby that provide that lovely feeling of being in a place that couldn’t be anywhere else.
A couple of blocks off the beach is Squigley’s, an ice cream parlor that’s been cooling down sunsoaked beachgoers for years. The smell of waffle cones spills from the doorway. The ice cream is good and the postcards plastered across the bubble gum pink walls provide a history lesson into Carolina Beach’s past. In one photo, ladies in bathing suits walk along a crowded boardwalk next to men wearing ties and fedoras. Another features the shuttered Landmark Diner, which for years was a favorite place for burgers and hot dogs. One shows a group dressed as confederate soldiers waving rebel flags on the beach.
The signature dish is named after the restaurant. It is a customized ice cream sundae made with vanilla ice cream and your pick of three toppings. With dozens of possibilities from fresh peaches to Nilla wafers, cheesecake, Oreos and cookie dough, choosing takes some thought. The toppings are mixed into the ice cream using a proprietary, and possibly homemade, machine that resembles a large drill. Each Squigley (and you have to order one—don’t mess with anything else) comes with a pink sticker and a “You’ve been squiggled,” from the staff.
Just up the road, adults cool off in the spectacularly grimy Fat Pelican. The Pelican is a dive bar, a deep dive, where, as they put it, “Beer is love.” Dimly lit, cool and grungy, it is a street level bar—part shack, part former garage—that feels deep underground. Murals and other weird, wonderful objects abound. An enormous artificial octopus peers over the entrance and greets thirsty beach folks. An alleged Shaquille O’Neal shoe dangles above the bar. A painting with an index card, stapled to it right in the center reads a little ironically, “Don’t write on the artwork.” Unlike almost any other bar, probably in the world, you serve yourself at the Fat Pelican from a walk in cooler, or more accurately, a refrigerated semi-truck trailer filled with hundreds of beer and cider. Don’t look for a menu at the Fat Pelican. Relying on one would impractical if not impossible.
Jim Kelly opened The Fat Pelican in 1986. According to legend, Kelly was visiting North Carolina from his home in Key West and decided Carolina Beach would be a great place to start a business. Kelly later sold the bar to Danny McLaughlin, a Vietnam veteran and former rock band caterer out of Greensboro.
Cobbled together with various semi-permanent buildings, the bar feels like a maze. After a day of harsh sun, wandering through dark and cool nooks and crannies stuffed with old lamps, stacks of board games, TVs and an arcade style crane game feels comfortable—like finding yourself in a friend’s basement. The bar itself is tiny with just a few stools, but there are plenty of couches and chairs scattered around. The bar's back patio is expansive with benches and tables sit right on the sandy soil.
Outside, I overheard a jukebox hungry husband say to his wife, "A dollar's good for two songs. I need some real cash baby." Shortly after she dealt his music allowance, Van Morrison's Brown Eyed Girl began playing through the speakers. Inside a couple sat on a couch with mismatched cushions deep into a game of Trivial Pursuit. In a secluded back corner, I tried my hand at the crane game and won a blue duck. The duck's eyes were crossed and its feet pointed in different directions. Appropriate, a drunken duck won from the Fat Pelican.
The Fat Pelican is coming up on its 30th anniversary. Squigley’s and Olde Salty’s have been around for about twenty years. The institution that is Britt’s is serving donuts for its 76th season. Around these anchors, and others, Carolina’s beach is thriving. One of the joys of this rejuvenation is that, so far at least, the beach remains a summertime destination for the same working and middle-class families who have historically enjoyed the beach.
Facing seemingly imminent decline, the Town of Carolina Beach and local citizens united in 2008 as the Boardwalk Makeover Group, now known as the Carolina Beach Downtown Initiative, putting in over 8,000 volunteer hours to restore community pride. Local volunteers painted, replanted, and redecorated the boardwalk. Business owners pushed for friendlier rezoning and got it. Amusement rides have returned. Bobby Nivens, the owner of Britt’s feels pretty good about life on the beach, “I think Carolina Beach as a whole is headed in the right direction. We have a lot to offer down here. It makes you feel proud about having a business like the donut shop. I’m 76. I’ve lived here about all my life. It’s just a great place.”
The future of Carolina Beach seems bright. In 2012 Food and Wine Magazine named Carolina Beach as one of the ten best boardwalks in the US. The next phase of revitalization begins this year and includes plans for new sidewalks and underground utility lines. But, the recent arcade fire has been a major setback. The boardwalk will likely need a new anchor that gives kids something to do in between the beach, donuts, and ice cream cones. There are plans to rebuild, and there is hope that the replacement for the iconic arcade will be a family-friendly option for tourists. Maybe the new version of the old arcade will include a suitable dance floor. If there is another summer of shark attacks, beachgoers will be looking for something on dry land to do. After all, sharks don’t do the Shag.